Teaching Jazz As A Language


"Telling a Story' in Jazz doesn't mean you have to play a ton of notes and have brilliant technique on your instrument." -- Russ Nolan
 One of the most challenging aspects of learning how to improvise or how to teach improvisation is knowing where to start. Most of us did not grow up listening to jazz around the house. However, we did grow up listening to one or two spoken languages that gradually became our. own. It's by the same process that we learn jazz language.

How does one develop a vocabulary? I have found that the easiest way to start is with Blues Scale. These six notes not only cover over the basic Blues changes, but can be applied in various harmonic situations. Just as a child's first words are 'mam' or 'dada', we can use the notes of the Blues scale as the same building blocks. Teaching in a group setting, use a 'Call and Response' format. Many students have never had a formal jazz improvisation lesson. Start by playing a rhythm with the tonic and have the students imitate it. Then ask students to come up with their own. Ask them, "If you can improvise with one note, why not try two?" And so it goes until we have progress through all six notes.


Building a Melodic Blues Line From the F Blues Scale Note by Note

First 2 Notes:

F, Ab, F, Ab, Ab, F, F, Ab, F, Ab, F.

First 3 Notes:

F, F, Ab, Ab, Bb, F, Ab, Bb, F, Bb, Ab, F.

First 4 Notes

F, Ab, Bb, B, Bb, Ab, B, Bb, Ab, F, Ab, Bb, B, Bb, Ab, F.

First 5 Notes

F, Ab, Bb, B, C, Bb, C, B, Bb, Ab, F, C, B, Bb, Ab, F.

First 6 Notes

F, Ab, Bb, B, C, Eb, F, Ab, Bb, B, C, Eb, B, Bb, Ab, F.

Now play 2-to-6 note lines going down the scale. Make up your own! That's improvising!

When I first started playing in a band as a keyboard player, I was not familiar with the speaking part of the music language, as a musician. Sometimes as musicians, we get introspective and start looking at why we play patterns or chord progressions the way we do.

A wonderful comparison between speech language and improvising in music is that everyone learns to speak and have a conversation, as well as write in our given language. Unfortunately, many musicians never learn the "speaking" portion of the musical language.

When I first started taking piano lessons, I was classically trained to read all the notes on the music staff. After several years of advancing through different levels of music books and applying lots of music theory, I still wasn't able to find a music teacher who wasn't afraid of improvisation.

In short, music educators were not taught the history and evolution of improvisation in "classical" music. During the baroque period of music, improvising was a basic part during that time. Musicians needed to learn this skill in order to work together effectively.

Some say it is a skill that one learns unconsciously, without effort and fear. So it is with my grandchildren who are learning a verbal language. Hopefully, no longer talking like a baby but the English language. They seem to improvise with that language every time they have a conversation with someone.

So, we learn to read and write the language and that means we need to learn grammar. But with music, we learn it differently. Most musicians, including myself, learn to read the music notes at first but we can't speak with one another unless we're looking at the notes. We simply do not know how to "jam."

When I first came across a very popular website online that teaches one how to play by ear, I would read about how easy it is to read the language of music and that it was not difficult to play by ear.

I was challenged at first because I could hear the difference in my playing without sheet music compared with the pros. It is necessary to have something worth saying when you speak the Jazz language. There is a huge difference between a beginner improviser and a great one. It's not about skill, technique or memorization, but it's about the concept and content.

As a piano teacher, I am trying to stay balanced with my students in finding the balance with their technique and developing their musical personality and composition.

A great tip is recording your self. Play the keys and playback your song and analyze the harmony and rearrange things a bit. The more you practice and get familiar with your instrument, your style becomes more fluid. Then you'll merge more with the other band members.

When I play with a group of musicians that I have known for quite sometime, you can just feel the chemistry. A transformational event takes place when we are playing live and we become one unified voice.

After all, improvising is the art of making up music on the spot. It is fun to learn the Jazz language. Learn-The-Jazz-Language

You might be interested in the 300 Pg Book By Ear and Finding the key to any song.


"Jazz washes away the dust of every day life." -- Art Blakey
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